Peter and the Starcatcher


By Philip Pearce

WITH ALL THOSE FLOATING GONDOLAS and flying chandeliers late 20th century Broadway offered us hydraulic theatre at its slickest. But early 21st century Broadway seems to be evolving into a riskier age of athletic theatre. More and more it’s all up to the actors. With minimal props and no scenery, Simon Stephens’ prizewinning stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time features eleven performers whose bodies create settings, set up and take down usable doorways, operate together as a moving passenger train—do physically whatever the script requires at the moment it’s required. They’re on stage not so much as detailed character studies than as active elements in a story-telling structure.

It’s much the same with the show Pacific Rep has just opened at the Golden Bough. There is scenery and the complicated plot deals with characters we’ve met long ago in children’s fiction. And these characters are involved in adventures harking back to the reign of Queen Victoria. But the pervading spirit of can-do improv makes this a very modern play. John Farmanesh-Bocca cleverly directs twelve gifted local actors performing more than thirty roles in an inspired swashbuckling spoof called Peter and the Starcatcher.

Peter is the name eventually given to an angry, repressed, silent and nameless orphan, played by Aaron Kitchin with a brooding sensitivity that contrasts nicely with the bounce and explosive activity of everybody else on stage. He’s one of a trio of workhouse orphans who gets sold to a sea captain as unpaid deckhands aboard a ship called The Neverland. Not surprisingly, the embittered thirteen-year-old boy is convinced that all adults are sadistic liars, so he doesn‘t ever want to grow up. His salvation is the starcatcher of the title, a feisty upper class girl named Molly Aster, played with appealing energy and wit by the delightful Bri Slama. Molly evades her nanny and sneaks out of first-class and down into the hold, where, Wendy-like, she charms the three lost boys by telling them bedtime stories. Her energetic friendship, along with a lot of adventurous nonsense involving a sea-chest filled with stardust and a nervous trainee pirate named Black Stache, turns the orphaned loaner into an airborne daredevil called Peter Pan.

John Newkirk soars gloriously over the top as the blustering but scaredy-cat pirate king Black Stache. Proud of his moustache but struggling with a shaky self-image, Stache is the goofiest in a big roster of goofy characters and Newkirk plays him to the hilt. I was particularly delighted with the moment when, in a neat homage to a classic Marx Brothers routine, he preens in front of a framed mirror that seems at first to hold his strutting reflection—or is that a costumed double (Kitchin) who’s been trained to copy his every move? The fact that this struggling buccaneer has a sidekick named Smee, acted with high-powered smarmy aplomb by Jared W. Hussey, leaves little doubt that when the misused orphan becomes the bumptious Peter Pan, neurotic Stache will lose a hand and blossom into a nasty Captain Hook.

There are eight more actors, each with his own named character and place in the story. Scott McQuiston is wonderful as Molly’s starchy but romantically vulnerable governess Miss Brumbrake. Richard Boynton plays her grubby, flatulent but adoring seagoing suitor Alf. James Brady is Molly’s properly patriotic Victorian papa Lord Aster. Peter’s two orphan sidekicks are identically dressed but nicely individualized by Skip Kadish as the ambitious but clueless Prentiss and Stephen Poletti as the amiable chow-hound Ted. Then there is versatile Michael D. Jacobs in a series of roles, ranging from the sadistic orphanage manager to some pretty dastardly sailors. Bob Colter is also on hand, all fuss and frustration as a sneaky sailor named Slank who really starts the treasure hunt by switching two identical sea-chests.

Peter and the Starcatcher calls for the kind of ensemble work that allows little time for waiting in the wings till you’re cued for your next appearance. Your assigned character may be having a rest, but you are more than likely to be on stage as a roistering pirate or in a hilarious second-act chorus line of fin-waving mermaids.

The overall treasure hunt plot is clear and basic enough, but, if anything, Rick Elice’s adaptation of the Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson novel tricks it out with a few too many clever twists and turns. Act 1 lasts an hour, Act 2, 55 minutes. It’s all live and wonderfully energetic, but maybe goes on ten or twelve minutes too long.

It’s not really a kid’s show either, at least not for the very young. The script is loaded with clever wordplay, clean but tricky double-entendres, historic and literary references and challenging bits of foreign vocabulary. A family with two small girls seated next to me found it all too sophisticated and slipped out during the first act. But if you love the wit and wisdom of J. M. Barrie, as I do, and want to find out how Peter learned to fly and how Hook lost his hand, this is a loud, lively and satisfying evening of fun.

It continues at the Golden Bough through July 16th. Having mounted this funny prequel, PacRep will then offer a full-scale production of Peter Pan in the renovated outdoor Forest Theater opening August 17.

Musical Comedy!

By Philip PeLaynearce

SHE’S WON PRAISE nationally and abroad, but we locals still insist Layne Littlepage is our own home-grown phenomenon. She was spot-on hilarious in her one-woman performances as Beatrice Lillie. She effortlessly stole the show as a New Age Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s High Spirits at MPC. The good news is she’s back with an hour of hi-jinx and vocal magic at the Carl Cherry Center.

With its classy new auditorium paint job, the Cherry is a perfect fit for Littlepage’s distinctive brand of intimate comedy and music. It’s a setting that creates an evening that’s half cabaret and half informal fun and games in your own Carmel living room.

The lady is there to remind us that, before the heavy-breathing soul-searches of Les Miz or the blood-stained melodramatics of Sweeney Todd, an all-singin’ all dancin’ Broadway show was, like Littlepage’s latest offering, something called “Musical Comedy!” And the “message,” if it has one, is Don’t Leave Off the Laughs or Forget the Exclamation Point.

In a voice that seems to grow more flexible and true with every passing year she runs the vocal gamut from the painful arpeggios of an over-ambitious soprano in “I Want to Sing in Opera” to the whiny pleas of Charles Schulz’s Lucy trying to lure Schroeder into matrimony and away from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

There’s an Irving Berlin number extolling the glories of 88 keys worth of piano. There’s a Cole Porter tribute to an East Coast Oyster. There’s Noel Coward’s Las Vegas lament “Why Must the Show Go On?” In a two-header with her funny and gifted accompanist Barney Hulse, Littlepage reprises that well-known Bea Lillie sketch about double damask dinner napkins.

But she doesn’t just stick to familiar favorites. Musical Comedy!, as she calls her new show, revives some wonderful material from lesser known comics like Flanders & Swann, Patricia Routledge and the sublime Joyce Grenfell. The latter puts in a memorable appearance as a lady trapped in mid-pew at a Sunday church service before she realizes she has left the gas on under Sunday lunch.

Always at the keyboard, the deft Barney offers his own solo selections, including a bit of Ivor Novello froth you might have heard briefly in Gosford Park called “And Her Mother Came Too.”

Once again, praise be, there are brief, sly guest appearances by Cliff Berry, who makes a Flanders and Swann gnu into something that looks and acts like an ingratiating cockney squirrel.

If there’s a fault it’s that it’s all finished in one brief hour, but as any self-respecting comic knows, it’s always better to leave ‘em laughing, than sneaking peeks at their Rolexes.

The music and laughter continue, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2 through July 2.